Study Guide

History of Rock & Roll Introduction

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History of Rock & Roll Introduction

How many times per week would you say you hear someone refer to "rock and roll" in some form or another? Probably more often than you realize. 

Let's think about this. Maybe you were watching LA Ink re-runs and heard tattooist extraordinaire Miss Kat Von D express her enthusiastic approval for, well, just about anything by proclaiming, "Rock on, dude!" Maybe your mom says, "that's rockin'" at the most inappropriate moments, like ours do. You may have followed MTV's advice and "turned up the volume on your rock style" by painting your toenails black. 

Oh, and, did you know that one of the fastest selling ringtones is a song called "Party Like a Rock Star" by the Shop Boyz, a hip-hop group that says they've sparked a new "movement" in music called "hood rock"?

The songs and the sounds we call "rock and roll" evolved from many different sources, in many different regions, and at many different moments in 20th-century history. The music was shaped—and continues to be molded and transformed—by countless regular people, some doing what they love, others seeking refuge from what they hate, some hoping to change the world, and still others resisting what they fear.

What is History of Rock & Roll About and Why Should I Care?

Do you like rock and roll? You may be thinking, "Well, it's okay, but I'm really into rap," or, "It's all about country music for me," or "White kids banging their heads isn't really my thing," or, "All that black makeup and big hair scares me," or, "Isn't that, like, really ancient?"

We won't call you a "hater," but maybe a tiny bit misinformed? The thing is, you may not realize how much "rock and roll" you actually listen to. Seriously. (But we'll come back to that.)

Or maybe you're saying, "Yes, I love rock and roll—I eat, sleep, breathe it. In fact, I am rock and roll!" 

Okay, Kat Von D, that's fine, but what do you mean when you say "I love rock and roll"? And by the way, contrary to what you might think, Britney Spears was not the first to sing that. But we encourage you to compare her version to the original. Wait, do you know who Joan Jett is, though? We'll come back to that, too.

So, what do you really mean when you say that? You, dear rock and roll fan, may not realize how much "rock and roll" you actually don't listen to, like music you never really considered "rock."

Then what exactly is rock and roll? And how does any of this fit into our day-to-day lives? How is Elvis related to Good Charlotte? Punk-rock and Jay Z? No way is there a connection. Oh, but there is. Jimi Hendrix and Justin Timberlake? Now you're just reaching. Well, a little, but the links are still there, we swear. 

Which artists and songs fit into this category, and why? Is it just a genre of music, or is it also an attitude? Is it something from the past, or something very contemporary? And where exactly did the term "rock and roll" come from?

You might be surprised by the answers to these questions, and really, the whole story of how rock and roll came to be. So, let's get rocking already.

History of Rock & Roll Resources


Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (1999)
Last Night's a book about some of the ways in which music became popular, and artists earned fans. Many rock artists and groups depended a great deal on radio—and later, club—disc jockeys to promote their sound. This book describes how disc jockeys rose to play such an important role in the history of popular music.

Laura Joplin, Love, Janis (1992)
Love, Janis is a detailed memoir written by Laura Joplin, Janis' sister. Full of intimate thoughts and observations about Janis, and stories about the singer's life growing up and coming of age in Port Arthur, Texas, this is an interesting read for anyone curious about this mysterious rock icon.

Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991)
Marcus has collected a wealth of articles, interviews, rumors, jokes, tabloid headlines, novels, and song lyrics on Elvis Presley produced since his death. Marcus sifts through these sources to understand who Americans think Elvis was, or who Americans want Elvis to have been—a tougher task than you might think.

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music (1975)
Marcus explores the music of several rock, funk, and blues artists including Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, the Band, and Sly and the Family Stone. Along with detailed biographies of these artists, Marcus offers the stories behind the music.

Lucy O'Brien, She Bop II: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop, & Soul (2004)
Although we object to the title—it just isn't possible to write a "definitive history" of, really, anything—She Bop II is one of the better books available on women in music. O'Brien offers up fascinating stories about some of the most successful and most fascinating performers and musicians in the business, complete with tough-to-get interviews.

Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (1995)
Robert Palmer—the historian, not the pop artist known for being "Addicted to Love"—tells the story of rock and roll as if it were a fiction novel. Drama, betrayal, sex, alcohol, drugs, and death—it's all in there. Palmer takes the reader on a journey through various moments in rock and roll history, stopping along the way to point out highlights, milestones, and some intimate stories beneath the music.


Woody Guthrie, The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie (1972)
Emerging as a folk balladeer and protest singer during the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie was—and continues to be—a major influence on rock songwriters and performers who find inspiration in his bold, forthright poetry.

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990)
A major influence on rock greats like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Johnson represents the essence of the blues. This collection includes all known songs written and recorded in the 1930s by the Mississippi legend. His music is haunting, playful, and vulgar, sometimes all at once.

Jerry Lee Lewis, 25 All-Time Greatest Sun Recordings (2000)
Jerry Lee Lewis loved how some people feared rock and roll and called it "the Devil's music." He agreed that rock was something irreverent, scandalous, and bad, or even baaaaaaad.

Little Richard, Here's Little Richard (2006)
Although Elvis Presley has been crowned the "Father" of rock and roll, Little Richard has always been a contender for the title (and, some might say, was robbed of it). Hear why Little Richard is considered to be one of the most important artists to lay the foundation for rock and roll.

Fats Domino, 20 Greatest Hits the Way You Originally Heard Them (2002)
Pianist, bluesman, and rock singer, Antoine "Fats" Domino was the best selling rock and roll artist of the 1950s, save Elvis Presley. Listen to some of the hits from this New Orleans rocker that topped the charts between 1950 and 1963.

Chuck Berry, Live at the Fillmore Auditorium (1968)
To truly appreciate just how much Chuck Berry has influenced the evolution of rock and roll, you have to listen to him performing live. In perhaps one of his most well-known stage performances, Berry blows the socks off everyone at this show at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Ike & Tina Turner, Proud Mary: The Best of Ike & Tina Turner (1991)
Before Tina Turner became the rock star of "What's Love Got to Do With It" fame, she was the ferocious leading lady of the Ike & Tina Turner review.

James Brown, Live at the Apollo, 1962 (2004)
This is a powerful live recording and one that captures the interplay between Brown and his audience. It includes the tracks "I'll Go Crazy," "Try Me," "I Don't Mind," "Think," "Please, Please, Please," "Strange Things Happen," and "Night Train."

Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956)
Elvis' self-titled debut record is perhaps his best, chock-full of his most memorable hits like "Blue Suede Shoes," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "My Baby Left Me."

Elvis Presley, Memories: The '68 Comeback Special (1968)
Before MTV was around, and long before MTV's "Unplugged" was, NBC aired a television special featuring Elvis Presley in an intimate performance in front of a small studio audience.

The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965)
Released one year after the arrival of Beatlemania in the United States, Rubber Soul was an instant classic—a superclassic, really. And it still is.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
It would be far too easy to pick up a "Best of the Beatles" compilation to introduce yourself to the group. Plus, it wouldn't be quite as fun as listening to an original studio album by the band, and one recorded just as the psychedelic era began to take shape.

Bob Dylan, Essential Bob Dylan (2000)
Here are 30 moving tracks from this legend of American folk music, including "Like a Rolling Stone," "Lay, Lady, Lay," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

The Rolling Stones, Jump Back: The Best of the Rolling Stones, 1971–1993 (2004)
Certainly not a definitive collection of the Rolling Stones' best work, this collection does capture a set of transformative periods in the group's career, and reflects the many political and social changes that marked the world in the last three decades of the 20th century.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967)
This album is mind-blowing, especially when you realize that Hendrix played a right-handed guitar backwards (because he was left-handed) and that he was painfully shy.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle, Vols. 1 & 2 (1985)
This group is a San Francisco Bay Area rock legend from the Vietnam era. The band's sound is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, but in the best way possible.

Janis Joplin, Greatest Hits (1999)
One of the few women that broke through to the rock and roll mainstream before the 1980s, Janis Joplin's vocals are raspy and sultry, and her lyrics are mean and soft, all at once. This collection is a must-own not only for those interested in women rockers, but for any fan of rock and roll, as Joplin is one of the all-time greats.

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
The album that epitomized the "Summer of Love," Surrealistic Pillow is rock at its most psychedelic. Grace Slick, one of the few women singers to rise to mainstream fame in the early years of rock, makes this album what it is.

Queen, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 (1995)
This British rock group, formed in 1970, gained international success through their carefully crafted rock compositions like "Killer Queen," "We Will Rock You," the Elvis-inspired "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," and the brilliant rock opera "Bohemian Rhapsody" written in its entirety by frontman Freddy Mercury.

David Bowie, Space Oddity (1969)
Singer-songwriter David Bowie struck many rock fans as odd, but, with each album, he was ahead of his time, experimenting with new types of production and unique lyrical imagery. Space Oddity offers just a taste of what makes Bowie such a stand-out sensation.

Led Zeppelin, IV (1971)
This classic album from Led Zeppelin made them the legends they are today. Robert Plant's primal vocals and Jimmy Page's aggressive guitar playing bless fierce tracks like "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll," and the notorious "Stairway to Heaven."

Black Sabbath, Paranoid (1971)
One of Black Sabbath's best selling, most loved albums, Paranoid marks a shift in the development of rock and roll—the rise of "heavy metal."

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Besides The Wall, this album is perhaps the best window into the soul of Pink Floyd. It's one of their best known and, still, most recognizable albums...and not only because of its cover art.

Patti Smith, Horses (1975)
Punk-rocker Patti Smith's debut album Horses is like a feminist manifesto, a book of poetry, a soul hymn, and a rebel yell all at once.

Judas Priest, Stained Class (1978)
This is the notorious metal album cited in a 1990 court case in which the band Judas Priest was charged with inciting two suicide attempts. Prosecutors claimed that the victims heard a subliminal message when they played the track "Better By You, Better Than Me" backwards, which told them to "Do it!" The case was dropped, but people today still try to hear the "subliminal messages" in the band's music. (There aren't any, by the way.)

Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
Van Halen's debut album took the rock world by storm with Eddie Van Halen's groundbreaking hammer-on technique, David Lee Roth's over-the-top lead vocals and frontman antics, Michael Anthony's driving bass lines and vastly underrated background vocals, and Alex Van Halen's drumming tying everything together.

AC/DC, Back in Black (1980)
AC/DC's best known and best-selling album in the United States is a must-own for any rock fan. It's AC/DC's first album after the death of Bon Scott, and the first featuring Brian Johnson on vocals. Johnson's voice is hair-raising, blood-curdling, and purely amazing.

Prince, The Hits / The B Sides (1993)
Rock, R&B, funk, and one does it quite like Prince. He's a master musician, a genius song-writer, a phenomenal singer, and a legendary performer. Plus, he manages to be sexy, vulgar, sensitive, rude, romantic, and irreverent all at once—just like a true rock star.

Bruce Springsteen, The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003)
A modern folk-rock singer influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson, Bruce Springsteen writes music from the perspective of a working-class man, often down on his luck, heart-broken, tired, frustrated with The Man, or all of the above.

U2, The Joshua Tree (1987)
Perhaps the single album that made the Irish band U2 an American rock phenomenon, Joshua Tree is solid from beginning to end. This record—their fifth—includes incredible ballads, such as "With or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name."

Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
The ultimate Guns N' Roses album, Appetite For Destruction blew all other '80s rock groups out of the water.

Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
Nevermind is the album that launched the band Nirvana into the rock mainstream, but also helped popularize an underground garage band scene bubbling for years in the American Northwest. Kurt Cobain's lyrics are dark, poetic, pained, and introspective, and the band compliments him so well.

Hole, Live Through This (1994)
Inspired by Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and her husband Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana, Courtney Love and her band Hole deliver a beautifully raw album, full of tortured rock rants, primal screams, vicious drums, and infectious guitar hooks.


Alan Freed's Moondog Coronation Ball
Concert poster for the Moondog Coronation Ball thrown by Alan Freed of the Moondog Radio Show, considered by some to have been the first rock and roll concert.

Jerry Lee Lewis
Singer Jerry Lee Lewis, like his influence Little Richard, stands as he performs a lively rock and roll song, c. 1957.

Chuck Berry "Duck Walking"
Musician Chuck Berry, an early rock and roll star, performing the "duck walk" with his electric guitar.

A young Elvis Presley, c. 1957.

The Beatles, Live
The Beatles perform for the first time on U.S. television as guests on The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9th, 1964.

Young Rolling Stones
A photo of The Rolling Stones, "long hair" and all, taken in 1964.

Jimi Hendrix Performs
A 1987 edition of Rolling Stone magazine featured an image of rock musician Jimi Hendrix on stage on the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, igniting his guitar at the end of his set.

The Rolling Stones' Controversial Cover Art
In 1968, Decca records withdrew the Rolling Stones, Beggar's Banquet album due to this "vulgar" cover art.

Presley and Nixon
In one of the most requested White House photos—and one of the more startling—'50s rebel rocker Elvis Presley poses with Republican president, and former member of the House Un-American Activities Commission, Richard Nixon, c. 1970.

"Rock's New Sensation"
The October 1975 edition of Time magazine, featuring "Rock's New Sensation," Bruce Springsteen.

Prince Performs
Prince performs at Chicago's Uptown Theatre, c. 1980.

The band KISS, in full makeup, on the cover of their hit self-titled album.

KISS Without Makeup
The band KISS, without their makeup, on the cover of their 1983 release Lick It Up.

The Controversy of Love Sexy
In 1988 and 1989, record retailers throughout the country refused to stock this Prince album, Love Sexy, because of its provocative cover art.

Movies & TV

The History of Rock and Roll (1995)
Yes, five DVDs and ten full hours of musical performances, interviews with artists, historical footage, and "behind-the-music" stories about the many stages of development in rock and roll. Go get some popcorn, and a lot of it.

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Ever wonder what the phrase "the '60s" really means? This documentary offers a vivid explanation, and all told through original film footage, photographs, and the words of those who lived it, many as teens and young adults in high school and college during the Free Speech Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the rise of Black Power, and the Summer of Love.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
This is a classic—and hilarious—mockumentary about the imaginary British heavy metal group Spinal Tap, the world's loudest band. It pokes fun at the heavy metal rock scene and all its excesses: the elaborate stage shows, the hair, the groupies, and the arrogance.

Purple Rain (1984)
Not the best romantic film ever made, but a classic from the '80s featuring a young Prince as "The Kid," a reclusive musician struggling to save a turbulent romance, keep his band together, confront his abusive father, and make it big in the music industry. And of course, the soundtrack's A+.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
Following the release of their 1979 album, The Wall, Pink Floyd hired director Alan Parker to create a film version of the record. Using just the songs from the album to narrate the storyline, Parker delivers what feels, at times, like a freakishly animated nightmare with allusions to fascism, flesh-eating monsters, and—wait for it—talking buttocks.

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970)
The director's cut version of this documentary features nearly four hours of footage from the three-day Woodstock music festival, including performances by the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1967)
This documentary features incredible footage of both performers and audiences at this pre-Woodstock music event, which launched the careers of artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)
The Beatles play themselves in this semi-fictional, mockumentary-style film about a band experiencing their first moments of extreme fame. When the mop-top quartet runs into mobs of screaming fans, hilariousness ensues.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis Presley stars as Vince Everett, a prison inmate serving a sentence for manslaughter. Young Everett's cellmate, a country singer, inspires him to pursue a career in music once released from prison. He finds, however, that the music business is full of low-down dirty rotten folks anxious to exploit him to make a buck.


The History of the Electric Guitar
The Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation presents the history of the electric guitar complete with a rundown on how guitars produce sound.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame offers a companion website to its museum. Highlights include a complete, chronological list of inductees, biographies, and fun facts, and images of some of the thousands of rock and roll artifacts on display at the Hall of Fame museum.

All Music
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive music-related sites on the web, All Music allows you to search through thousands of artist biographies and discographies. Although a bit overwhelming at first glance, you can quickly learn to navigate through the wealth of information.

Historical Documents

Transcripts from Senate Hearing on Profanity
Read the transcripts from the famous September 19th, 1985 Senate hearing on "profanity" in music. Check out testimony delivered by members of the Parents Music Resource Center and recording artists Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister.

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